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Say 'shalom' to Hebrew in public schools

A grade-Aleph education

Hebrew schools image
The Niles North High School Hebrew class sells falafels on their school’s Israel Day, which they run.

"Shalom!" is not something a student expects a public high school teacher to say on the first day of class. Unless it is a Hebrew language class.

With seven such classes, Chicago stands out as having more public schools teaching Hebrew than any other community in the United States; Hebrew is now being taught to students at Deerfield, Evanston, Glenbrook North, Highland Park, New Trier, Niles North, and Stevenson high schools. Chicago also is the only Federation which promotes and supports the enrollment of Jewish teens in public-school Hebrew language programs. With enrollment of more than 500 students, Chicago accounts for the largest share of students, estimated at around 1,500 nationally.

Israel's significance to the U.S. makes Hebrew one of the languages sought by the Foreign Service for its employees. Many top colleges offer Hebrew, too. 

Hebrew, an official language of Israel, is a link both to its ancient past and its high-tech present. "Learning this language makes me feel a connection to history and to the people who have been speaking it for thousands of years," said Hannah W., a sophomore at Glenbrook North. "This class has allowed me to create special bonds with my classmates, creating a lively environment for me to learn in."

Josh Morrel started teaching Hebrew there in 2010, the year its Hebrew program began. That year, it was the smallest language class, with 50 students. "Now that we consistently top 80 kids, we are the third largest language, behind French and Spanish," Morrel said. "Today, we serve five levels, including advanced topics and independent studies."

Morrel adds that his school, like others, now offers the STAMP (STAndard Measurement of Proficiency) test, a nationally recognized standard Hebrew exam for students to earn accolades, such as the Illinois State Seal of Bi-Literacy, which now merits college credit in every university in Illinois.

New Trier, where Hebrew has been taught since the 1980s, also has some 80 students, in all four grades. The students are typically active in the community and their congregations. The teacher, Kimberly Hafron, grew up in Tucson, Ariz., went to an ulpan (Hebrew immersion course), and has studied Biblical Hebrew. This is her 15th year teaching the subject. 

Some of her students continue their Hebrew education in college, and some place out of their college freshman course. "Students are not aware how significant Hebrew is for college admissions, how unique it makes them," Hafron notes, adding, "Students benefit from doing what they didn't know they could do. It prepares them with the confidence that creates further success." 

New Trier's Hebrew program partners with the iCenter, she says, for "one awesome crazy event every year"-this year's being an Israel film festival. 

The iCenter- the "i" is for "Israel"-promotes Israel education in schools and Jewish organizations. Among their services, it offers professional development for Hebrew teachers. "Teachers have to maintain certification and licensure," explains Binnie Swislow, an iCenter consultant. "iCenter offers these accredited hours, teaching the Hebrew language and its culture." 

Speaking of Israel, some Hebrew students can now go there-on an American-Israeli exchange program at Niles North, the first of its kind with a public school in the U.S. "The students will go to Israel for 10 days over spring break," said Anna Raiber, who teaches Hebrew at Niles North, and now at Evanston as well. The exchange school in Israel is in Carmiel, her Israeli "hometown"- and her mother is its principal. 

Niles North offers Hebrew in all four grades, plus Advanced Placement. "We don't think of this as a Jewish class, but as a foreign language class," she said. Niles North is a huge school, she adds, but the Hebrew class offers a daily dose of community. Niles North also had an Israeli movie night, Raiber said, hosted by their Hebrew Honor Society, which was attended by 500 students and their friends and families.

Niles North senior Spencer Schwartz is the president of the school's National Hebrew Honor Society chapter. "The Hebrew Program at Niles North is more than a language, rather a community of students passionate about their identities," he said. "We are able to teach peers, learn from others, and flourish as one family."

"I am so lucky to be able to study Hebrew at public school," said Niles North senior Alana Stein. "Hebrew connects me with my cultural and religious identity, and it creates a small, meaningful community in such a large school. I am so grateful for the incredible Hebrew program at Niles North."

Raiber was born in Russia, and then moved to Israel before coming to the U.S. She is still fluent in Russian, which she says is harder to learn that Hebrew. In fact, students can become fluent in Hebrew by their third year, rare for a foreign language. 

Raiber pointed out that Spanish and French are often taught in middle school, or junior high, which naturally leads students to want to continue those languages into high school. Hebrew, however, is not taught in middle schools-yet.

"It is important to introduce Hebrew into the middle schools, because whatever language the students are taking in those grades tends to be the one they continue to take in high school," agreed longtime JUF Board Member Andrea Yablon, who also has served as Chair of the JUF Overall Planning and Allocations Committee and is a member of JUF's SAFA Foundation.

SAFA, the Foundation for Promotion of Hebrew Language and Israel Culture in Public Schools, is named for the Hebrew word for "language." JUF established SAFA in April 2015 to be the first foundation aimed at promoting the study of Hebrew and Israeli culture in the public schools. SAFA brings together organizations, students, and parents involved in existing Hebrew programs; advocates for expanding Hebrew to more school districts; and raises and allocates funds to support these efforts. The foundation also is working introduce Hebrew language study to middle schools. 

Some students take Hebrew in high school after having taken it in day school in their elementary school years, Yablon said; adding Hebrew to public middle schools will allow those students to enter high school Hebrew with familiarity with the language as well. 

Helene Herbstman also is part of that effort. Her previous job was to recruit students to take Hebrew in high school. Now, she chairs a JUF committee that continues that work, marshaling the resources of many Jewish organizations that interact with young teens and their parents: congregations and rabbis, youth groups and Israel-experience programs, day and overnight camps, and more. Along with learning the language, she pointed out, Hebrew class provides an education about Israel itself, which is useful whether visiting there or defending Israel against protesters at college. Non-day school students can begin Hebrew I studies without any fears of being behind others. It's a great opportunity for everyone, regardless of background.

Devra Shutan, who serves on JUF's Women's Board, also serves on this committee. In a recent meeting, she listed several advantages to taking Hebrew in high school, from learning about Israeli culture to engaging with Israelis themselves. "If students continue Hebrew in college," she said, "it's like having something familiar there from home."

The Hebrew teacher at Deerfield, Yaffa Berman, teaches some 80 students and wants them to connect to Israel. She uses the textbook as a starting point, supplementing it with Israeli media. "My goal is to get the students to speak- and speak correctly- quickly," she said.

Every Friday, her students watch a movie with a theme or story they have studied all week, from the Entebbe rescue to immigration to Israel from across the Middle East. Berman's parents made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) from Iraq in 1951; while she was born in Israel, she shared their immigrant story.

"Language has to connect to a land, a people," she said. She uses videos to immerse the students in Israeli culture-teaches them how to make hummus in the school's kitchen, has them act out Israeli plays, and shows them the paintings of great Israeli artists.

Guests to Berman's classroom have run from Israeli politicians and soldiers to U.S. Congressional figures to the Israeli rap group "Strong Black Coffee." "Some 600 people came to their performance," she said. "It was their largest audience on their North American tour."

A hundred students and family members attended the recent inductions to the school's Hebrew Honor Society. And every January brings "Israel Day," in which her students turn the school's lobby into a shuk (marketplace), with hummus-making, hamsa painting (amulet popular in Israel), Israeli music, and falafel for sale. 

"We are very visible and strong," she said. "We are very proud of what we have accomplished, but there is always more to do. Our students come back every year; there is a sense of mishpacha." 

Hebrew classes have even made the news, thanks to Anna Gorbikoff, who was profiled in The Chicago Tribune . Gorbikoff teaches Hebrew at Stevenson, a total of 32 students in three grades. Many of her students are involved in their congregations, youth groups, and camps outside of the classroom, and she hopes all will go on Birthright Israel trips. Some are native Israeli speakers, but now have to learn to read and write the language. In class, she focuses on language that is applicable and relevant-"It helps if it means something to them," she said.

Gorbikoff was born in Ukraine and went to school in Israel, also practicing her Hebrew with a shlichah (Israeli cultural ambassador) at her Hillel. Plus, she teaches Spanish. "Learning your fourth language is easier than your third," she laughed. "Language is my thing," she said. "Nothing is more exciting than being able to express yourself in different ways."

For high schoolers in the Chicago area, Hebrew class can provide a taste of adventure, a taste of comfort-or even a taste of hummus. Truly, something for all tastes.  

Enrollment for Hebrew courses for 8th graders, who will be entering one of these high schools next year as ninth graders, takes place in January or February.For more information about Hebrew in public schools, contact 


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